Coaching Notes: Building Community in Diverse Classrooms

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Recently, I listened to an edu-celebrity talk, at length, about “speaking our students’ language,” where I thought we might try to dig into centering non-canonical texts, valuing multiple literacies, and multiplying funds of knowledge in our classrooms. This was a chance, on an influencer level, to have a conversation with a full room of mostly white educators about how notions of “language” work in schools and what that means for students who aren’t in the dominant culture identities. However, the next slide featured a clip of “Old Town Road,” which was used as an example of “speaking our students’ language” and building relevant school environments for students, and a slide after that featured the edu-celebrity doing the Whip and Nae-Nae. While the inclusion of music, films, books, and other forms of media into lessons can be beneficial, the mere presence of Lil Nas X or Silentó or any another artist doesn’t make a classroom relevant or responsive to student, especially if the same oppressive pedagogies and practices that are responsible for the continuation of systemic inequity remain underneath the surface. In other words, these surface-level attempts at inclusion send a dangerous message to rooms of white educators: put on a rap song and dance your way to a more culturally relevant classroom without acknowledging the historical context and current reality of racism and other kinds of bias. Building more equitable environments requires consistent, ongoing work and effort to confront bias and unlearn inequitable practices that marginalize our students. Unfortunately, in the edu-celebrity’s speech there wasn’t any mention of the continued reflection and learning that white educators, myself included, need to do to understand how and what our identities mean in our classrooms and schools.  (By the way, if you’re interested in reading more on the way edu-influencers topics around equity, Benjamin Doxtdator has written extensively about it.)

This speech had me reflecting on coaching sessions I’ve been doing with teachers this year around building inclusive classrooms, a huge part of which is honest, open, and uncomfortable self-reflection. Two of the teachers I’ve worked with this year admitted to struggling with building a connective community in racially and culturally diverse classrooms because they don’t share the students’ experiences and because the students don’t share the experiences of one another. There was a way in which these practitioners want solutions with quick implementation and fast results, but there is no efficient way—whether its “Old Town Road” or the Whip and Nae Nae—to create connected classroom cultures. Chrysanthius Lathan writes: “Many white teachers are discouraged, believing that they are ill-equipped to meet the needs of students color simply because they don’t have the same experiences as them.” This discouragement often leads to what Lathan calls “avoidance,” or it leads to looking for surface solutions to engrained, systemic issues. It’s worth white teachers thinking critically about how to make our classrooms humanizing spaces for students of color, and I’ve been working with colleagues in large and small ways to try to do the hard work of dismantling exclusive spaces and building more inclusive ones in their place.

Don’t Avoid Talking About Race and Justice. Lathan’s idea of “avoidance” resonates because I know that many White teachers, including me, have at times struggled to have honest conversations about race and justice because of insecurity, fragility, and lack of education on critical issues related to race. Our students want to talk about identities and how and what their mean, and we need to be able to provide them with the space and support to have courageous conversations, which means rededicating ourselves to raising our level of consciousness through formal professional development and training, continued informal education, including seeking out our own resources to raise our level of consciousness, and a commitment to anti-racist, anti-bias education. Learning to lean into conversations about race and justice is truly learning to speak our students’ language. In the case of the edu-celebrity’s talk, they avoided talking about race save for in coded ways that made the conversation safe and sanitized for the audience; there was no direct discussion of the threats faced by people of color in this country each day.

As a coach, I’ve read Elena Aguilar’s thinking that encourages us to pursue justice for kids in our transformative work with teachers.  Perseverance is required in shifting these deep-seated mindsets that have impacted every element of teacher practice.  In this spirit, I frequently recommend the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards as a framework to use to reshape and reorient their classrooms; it sets out important ends that both teachers and students can use to work toward democratic, equitable, and socially just classroom spaces. The ideas of a “common language” and an “organizational structure,” phrases used in the introduction to the standards, help anchor teachers and their practices to the anti-racist, anti-bias work required to build the equitable schools and classrooms that we want. Having a robust conception of what anti-racism and anti-bias look like in practice make practitioners more likely to act. Many teachers don’t know that the Teaching Tolerance Standards exist, and more education around them is necessary in schools.

Build Healing Classrooms: Even with an emphasis on social-emotional learning, the teambuilding and connection-making work that are hallmarks of the first week or two of classes go by the wayside when “content” becomes the star of the show, which makes the connections hollow and sustaining relationships difficult. Moreover, social-emotional learning that doesn’t have anti-bias work at its center is, at best, incomplete. Antero Garcia and Elizabeth Dutro encourage teachers to consistently reflect on their positionality within the classroom relative to students and how students are positioned to each other based on the physical and social constructions of the learning environment and our society. Garcia and Dutro talk about ensuring that we are “critical witnesses” to students and that students are “critical witnesses” to each other, which means listening “deeply and compassionately.” This message is in direct opposition to the influencer’s key themes: there is individualistic competition for high-paying jobs, so we better start preparing you for the competition now regardless of toxic and oppressive that might be.

Elements of restorative practices aren’t just for readmitting students; they can be used proactively to create healing environments that both acknowledge and work against oppressive systems that make students feel like they don’t belong. I’ve been encouraging teachers to use mini-conferences throughout the trimester to check in with each student so that no feels invisible or unheard. This requires teachers to attentively and actively listen without defensiveness, pretense, or trying to think of a response, even when they might not like what they’re hearing. I’ve also encouraged the use of circles at regular intervals where students can listen to the stories and experiences of their classmates, which are often visceral and always so important. Healing classroom communities have connection at their center, and restorative practices focus on individual and communal engagement. While these practices take time and might be mildly disruptive to content, they are central to the continued work of connection that our classrooms require to connect us to our students and our students to us. These are practices that help us and our students bear “critical witness” to each others’ experiences.

Center Stories, Not Stuff: Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate have both written extensively about the ways that centering stories can have profound impacts on how they see the world. Building the trusting space necessary to have students feel comfortable and safe enough to share vulnerability is incredibly intentional and difficult, which requires a rethinking of how classrooms are organized. In strange ways, the edu-celebrity presentation I watched was doused in capitalistic undertones about making students competitive in a cutthroat world, which certainly speaks to students have come to view school as a space to fight for limited resources. For someone who claimed to be so against deficit orientations, the influencer spent a ton of time on scarcity. Shifting away from “stuff,” like capitalistic notions of success, rank ordering students, and amplifying notions of “rugged individualism,” can have positive impacts on all students because it shifts away from notions of school as a communal space where students work together to have important conversations, share important stories, and empower each other is anathema to “stuff.” Building this communal space that undoes some of the more competitive and exclusionary elements of school requires teachers to reorient their pedagogies, reimagine their time, and respect the voices and values of those who don’t share their experiences, but, if they can do so, they may find themselves revisiting their beliefs along with their students.

One of the strategies I’ve been advocating with teachers is having communal writing days where students can write about important, compelling issues—issues confronting them and our society—without any sort of grading mechanism. Students can choose an issue, find mentor texts that can help the group along, and then share their stories with one another in an open forum. As Linda Christensen argues that we need to be “developing curriculum that builds students’ intellectual capacity to engage in national dialogues,” which gives credence to creating an authethnographic classroom.

The subtext of the influencer’s keynote was that our schools and classrooms are meritocracies, and putting students on the same “playing field” is about teaching students to code or making sure that Lil Nas X is blasting when they walk in. For me, anyway, I think this message misses the mark. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with teaching students to code, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing music when they come into class, but, on their own, these things aren’t going to fundamentally change the bedrock inequitable practices systemically built into classrooms and schools. It is the inequitable practices that lead to disproportionate outcomes. We can’t avoid talking about these issues and this work, especially when we have captive audiences of folks who need to hear it.

Coaching Notes: Building Anti-Racist Book Clubs

ECXjN5IWwAAS_RCThis summer, I worked with my administration to make a substantial investment in non-canonical texts for students in one of our AP courses.  Students were being assigned to read mostly white male authors like Fitzgerald and Hawthorne, even as the class was becoming increasingly less white and male due to building and districtwide initiatives to ensure that AP and honors classes were accessible and inclusive to all members of our community.  Students of color, in particular, saw mirrors for their white peers, but mainly windows for themselves (to paraphrase Dr. Sims Bishop), and there needed to be a different balance if we hope to create a sense of belonging for students.  To foster a sense of belonging, we needed to interrogate how whiteness influenced and was being enacted in curriculum.  Students now have access to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Jose Antonio Vargas’ Dear America among others.

Access to texts is important, but so are the practices we use to teach them.  Too often, we read authors from LGBTQ+ backgrounds, authors of color, and authors from non-European countries to be compliant, to check a box, or to perform equity and inclusion rather than taking seriously the anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-Eurocentric our work—and these works–demand.  In other words, there is a way to read any of the texts we purchased without actually reading them; we could attend to the words on the page without ever feeling discomforted or challenged.  Students can get bogged down in rhetorical analysis and lose sight of the larger historical precedents and systems we, teachers and students alike, must urgently confront.  Many of the text choices we made and much of the thinking we’re doing around how to best teach them are the result of the amazing ideas shared by the #DisruptTexts team.

While I was able to advocate for new books as a department chair, implementing responsive teaching around these texts is a significant part of my role as an instructional coach because, ultimately, we’re not teaching books, we’re teaching students.  Shifting practice, a second-order change, is especially difficult because our pedagogies—the way we’ve always done things—are so interwoven, often uncritically, with our professional identities.  To use DiAngelo’s work, pedagogical pushes toward equity are subject to white fragility, which can even stall changes that educators support at the conceptual level.

Our comfort as educators can’t come at the expense of our students and their lives, and when we work to drill a book like Just Mercyas AP test preparation through ahistorical teaching or without giving students space to freely talk about important issues, we’ve moved toward compliance.  Equity, inclusion, and anti-racism are not box-checking exercises.  This part of the introduction from Teaching Black Lives resonates:

“Provide a social justice, anti-racist curriculum that gives students the historical grounding, literacy skills, and space to explore the emotional intensity of feelings around the murder of Black youth by police.  At the same time, deep discussion of these heavy issues needs to be built on strong classroom community.  Students can’t launch into discussions of racism without a basis of trust and sharing among students and between students and teacher.  This is the slow, steady work of meaningful classroom conversation, purposeful group work, and reading and writing about critical social justice and personal issues.”

This provides the framework, and we have to think about the practices within that framework that will help us meet our equity goals as a school and a community.  Anti-racist outcomes are made possible through anti-racist practices, which require all of us—especially white educators—to consider whether we’re moving toward anti-racism or existing in symbolic compliance when the door closes in our classroom.  Important, urgent texts in the hands of people checking boxes can ultimately do more harm than good.  As Benjamin Doxtdator writes:

“Expanding the canon isn’t only about creating a culture in schools where students of color see people who look like them represented in what they read, but also de-centering whiteness so that all students have expanded perceptions of the intellectual legacies of people of color.”

I’m currently working with a teacher to ensure that we’re teaching our students and these texts responsively and responsibly by creating anti-racist book clubs that empower all of our students to have important conversations and take vital action on equity and social justice issues in a supportive, trusting environment.  Students will get to select their books during the book club.  While we know the benefits of this work for our students of color, our white students, who make up the majority of our school’s population, need to also engage in substantive interrogation of their identities and what and how they mean if we hope to create a more just future. Here’s how we’re approaching these anti-racist book groups, which are a work in progress.

Community Building + Goal Setting

Without a meaningful, substantive classroom community, meaningful discussions about social justice and equity are virtually impossible.  In order to build the student-to-student connections required to have substantive dialogue around important topics of social justice, students will work together to look through the Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance and decide two major goals they want to focus on during the course of unit.  Students will work individually and collectively to meet these goals during the course of the unit (and beyond), and they will complete several small reflections and one larger summative reflection to chart their progress.  These standards don’t replace the academic goals that we have, but we feel they make them more possible by making the classroom increasingly safe and equitable. Centering this work for students—and trusting and supporting them to own it—is an important step in reducing prejudice and engendering collective action, which the standards are meant to support.

Building Historical Context

In a different class that I was in this week, the teacher continually asked their students after reading a section of the textbook, “Who haven’t we talked about?”  These discussions are important, as our curriculums and the companies that control them, elevate and amplify the powerful while minimizing what artist Glenn Ligon calls the  “small-h histories” of the women, children, indigenous and black people of color who have been vital in the “big-H” History of our country and our world.  Each book group will spend time closely reading through curated primary and secondary documents designed to challenge, extend, or confirm their thinking.  Students will apply their thinking to their book, which we hope will provide them with important context for understanding from perspectives outside the privileged who have been consistently represented.  In a recent interview, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, said:

 “I think this mythology—that of course we’re all beyond race, of course our police officers aren’t racist, of course our politicians don’t mean any harm to people of color—this idea that we’re beyond all that (so it must be something else) makes it difficult for young people as well as the grown-ups to be able to see clearly and honestly the truth of what’s going on.”

An ahistorical teaching of these texts can allow mythologies to linger and the biases inherent in these mythologies to continue unchallenged, just as the myth of colorblindness has been allowed to continue. We need to correct the old histories we’ve heard repeated time and time again, and we need to find new histories, too.  In correcting old histories and learning new ones, it’s also important we resist the urge for a single story.  No group of people is monolithic, so thinking about the vast array of experiences is incredibly important.

Understanding Systems

In addition to book groups that will provide necessary historical context, I suggested using twice-weekly “panel discussions,” which allows students from each reading group to talk amongst each other about an important-yet-probing questions while others listen and generate additional important questions that they want to talk about or that they want to pose to the group.  Understanding the connections between the books and the systems represented within them is significant, as it permits challenges to and action against the supposedly normal, “common sense” structures that are in place to maintain the status quo.  Our students, as Ibram X. Kendi suggests in How to be an Anti-Racist, need to take an active role in thinking beyond now and engaging in thinking and action to build an anti-racist future.

 

These are the urgent-yet-imperfect first steps we’re taking to #DisruptTexts in a course that needs it.  As Tricia Ebarvia writes, we know that there will be “discomfort and defensiveness” from teachers and students as we engage in this process, as we have to confront racism directly and whose knowledge gets valued and whose stories get heard shifts away from those in dominant positions, but we need to remain committed to this work and critical of our own practice to avoid slipping back into what’s comfortable at the expense of what our schools, students, and communities need: an anti-racist education for an anti-racist future.  An unwillingness to do the urgent work required of us means that kids will be (re)traumatized and (re)harmed, and we have a moral obligation to work actively against trauma and harm.

The Case Against Cell Phone Bans: Trust, Equity + Student Voice

 

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Groundhog Day: Phones + Their Discontents

As a department chair, the first few weeks before school often feature meetings and conversations about implementing new and revising existing school policies and procedures with other school leaders.  Revision of procedures to meet the needs of dynamic people in a changing environment is a healthy organizational practice, and, often, the conversations uncover ideological biases, ideologies, and assumptions that, sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly, get written into our school handbook, course syllabus, or classroom norms.  Interrogating the origins of our beliefs and values given our identities and experiences and understanding how they manifest themselves in educational spaces is critical if equity is at the forefront of our thinking and practice.  Implementing policies without meaningful reflection about who they will impact and how is negligent, especially to populations who already face systematized discrimination.  Often, the policies least interrogated are those that folks feel most strongly about; we become entombed by our certainty, so minds rarely ever change.  Among the least interrogated, yet most wanted policies are schools are bans on mobile phones.  If you’re want to win Twitter today, all you need to do is post something about a phone ban and watch the flood of parents, teachers, and other administrators like, retweet, and reply with furious and effusive praise.

Phones are sites where we work out our frustrations about the other things that we can’t—or won’t—name.  As teachers, we know, logically, that outright banning tools with educational and connective purposes is both ineffective and unethical, but we, naturally, struggle with not being the center of the room or students’ access to massive amounts of information or our high need for control.  Taking students’ phones is an easy way to get those likes and retweets, to show that we’re serious about learning, but, in the end, it does little good and harms both our relationships with students and the sense of independence we’re trying to foster.  I’m aware of the research that talks about how students sometimes use technology in the classroom, and I’m not naive that this does, has, and will happen in my own classroom, too,  However, these studies didn’t mention anything about any conversations people had with students about responsible and contextual technology use, though we might reasonably assume there were strongly-worded warnings in the syllabus and, that, on the first day students were sufficiently talked at about the perils of phone use, much like the scene from health class in Mean Girls.  There’s also a load of problematic junk science on phones that folks rely on to craft harsh and oppressive policies, including the infamous study by Tom Bennett that is continuously brought up in these debates.

While this post may not change anyone’s mind about phones in their classrooms, I want to try to make a case against the full-scale banning of phones in classrooms and schools.  It is important to acknowledge that research exists that suggests creating distance between teenagers and their phones can help them focus and increase their achievement.

Start With Trust

We know that total prohibitions are rarely ever effective in both preventing a behavior or educating people about why a behavior should be avoided.  Our own experiments with abstinence-only sex education should be a clear warning about what happens when we aren’t presenting information that helps students make informed, educated choices.  Phones, like pencils, paper, and erasers, are part of our lived environment, and asking people to refrain from them, especially when they can have legitimate educational and connective purposes, is flawed; we need to be talking withstudents about how to use the technology responsibly and thoughtfully.  As Jesse Stommel writes, “We can talk to students about attention and have them talk to us about how attention works for them. This is the kind of metacognitive work that is the stuff of learning.” Together with our students, we can build collective norms that we individually agree to abide by as part of a community of learners. There is a fundamental difference between listening toand talking withour students about important decisions that impact their educational environments and surveilling them to ensure their compliance with ourrules, which often are meant to situate us at the seat of power.  Like any inclusive, consensus-building activity, working with students build collectively agreed upon norms can be messy, but I’d argue here that the process is more important than the outcome: not only do these activities signal trust, they encourage students to be  personally reflective about their own behaviors and make informed choices about their behavior.  These arguments, by the way, are not even taking into account how outright bans on phones may negatively impact—and further stigmatize—students who need devices to learn, including those students who may not have a diagnosis.

Statements like I’m making here have gotten me eye rolls—and much worse—from colleagues and administrators; I’m frequently accused of being “pie in the sky” about my belief that students can and should have a say in the conduct of their classroom, and I’ve been accused of being a lax disciplinarian.  School isn’t a panopticon, and I’m not a warden. I’m a teacher, and my most positive outcomes have been working with students as equitable partners rather than against them as a high-seated authority.  It’s difficult for me to take seriously the forever-and-always calls for “building relationships” from folks who are also encouraging the enforcement of rules that lack student voice or perspective.

Outright bans on phones further entrench schools in asymmetrical power dynamics where students have little voice or say in the rules and norms they are being asked to follow and are often given very little rationale for why the rules and norms exist.  Look around your next faculty meeting and see who is in violation of your school’s cell phone ban.  In a recent meeting I was in, more than half the participants had their phones out and used them at one point during the meeting.  If we aren’t willing follow the rules we set down for our students, then those rules are likely flawed, unless we only care about solidifying our place at the top of the hierarchy.

Implicit Bias + Discipline

A new study, led by Kate Wegmann at the University of Illinois, shows that Black students receive fewer warnings than their white peers for misbehavior.  White students were generally given more warnings, which are opportunities to correct behaviors, than Black students who faced harsher punishments earlier and more often.  Our implicit biases manifest themselves all over our classrooms—from our beliefs about student achievement to grading—so it isn’t surprising that is has an impact on who we discipline and how we discipline them.  What feels like an equitable policy—an outright ban—probably isn’t in practice, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is equitable might be very well hurting students who have already been traumatized by our systems and policies.  In other words, it’s easy to look at inequity as something that just happens rather than something that’s explicitly caused by our values, beliefs, and actions.

The disproportional outcomes students face when overzealous rules are put into place are harmful socially and academically, but the processes used to get to those outcomes are also in need of examination and change.  My concern with these kinds of blanket rules is that teachers, some wittingly and some unwittingly, will replicate the traumas of “zero tolerance,”subjecting Black and Brown students to harsh punishment for minor violations.  Indeed, it is easy to see how these policies can lead to “broken windows policing” in classrooms where teachers are looking for violations and acting swiftly and harshly to “make an example” of the student so others won’t mimic or replicate the behavior.  All the while, the teacher can claim they were following the rules of the school, which are clearly and carefully laid out.  A violation is a violation, after all, and exception shows softness.  Before we argue about lost academics from cell phone use, let’s also acknowledge that an estimated 20 percent of the Black-White achievement gap is attributable to inequities in school discipline, which are often related to the zero tolerance, broken windows policies described here.  Moreover, harsh punishments for banal violations can actually cause more disruptions and higher rates of misbehavior among the punished.

All policies that we enact and enforce reveal our assumptions about our students—they make our implicit biases explicit and codified—and blanket phone bans are no exception.  If phones are the sites where we play out our unspoken fears, where our generational and positional proxy battles are played out, it is worth examining what we’re saying and who were saying it about when we ban them.

What’s Next: Try Using a “Liquid Syllabus” for Classroom Policies

I was introduced to the term “liquid syllabus” by Michelle Pacansky-Brock in 2014, and, in addition to make course syllabi more beautiful and appealing to engage with, she encourages us to think about making them interactive and crowd-sourced.  Indeed, the whole idea of the “liquid syllabus” is that it’s malleable and shifts based on the dynamism of our environments and the people within them. As we head back to school, it’s useful to keep your syllabus open for a period of time—maybe we a week or two—and have students engage with it, provide you feedback, and reach consensus on key issues.  Not only will this invest them in the content of the syllabus, you’re showing, early, that their voices will be taken seriously and the environment is one where their ownership is encouraged and valued beyond just show.  The process matters, as we want to teach our students to make decisions, to reach consensus, and to be part of a democratic system.  If this is too much, too soon, there are baby steps: you might keep a few non-negotiables while letting your students determine the rest, but, remember, you can’t just throw them the scraps.  They need to have a legitimate voice in the pressing matters of the classroom. Student have to know that your serious about providing them a voice; they won’t participate meaningfully in an exercise that doesn’t lead to substantive engagement or change (nor should they).

The “liquid syllabus” is uncomfortable for some, as it may reveal—and students may comment on—implicit biases and unfair assumptions embedded in rules and policies that we thought were equitable and reasonable.  Over the years, students have asked me about and pushed me on practices that were lodged deep into my pedagogy.  Their questions weren’t mean or rude—they were genuine attempts to both understand and push—and this is where I’ve gotten the best instructional coaching of my career.  It’s easy to get defensive, but it’s important to remember that our temporary discomfort in confronting our biases matters far less than the weight of oppressive systems that traumatize our students.  There’s a lot to be said for modeling how to be vulnerable, take feedback, and grow for the students in your classroom.

Next week, I’ll be using a “liquid syllabus” protocol with my Writing Center students to build working agreements for our time together throughout the year, and I’m excited to see what our new tutors bring to the discussion while also understanding what our returning tutors learned from their previous experience.

Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves: Uncomfortable Truths About Grades + Grading for White Educators

Stories We Tell Ourselves: Grades, Grading + Whiteness

Discussions about disproportionality often focus on outcomes, but rarely, if ever, do we discuss the practices that lead to inequities.  As a white educator who works with many other white educators, I would argue that our unwillingness to question practices lies in a fear of finding out the answers, answers which might require us to change deeply held personal beliefs and pedagogies that we have practiced and have likely benefitted us as we moved through our formal schooling.  Indeed, many of the systems that have privileged us have necessarily subjugated those unlike us because we like and support, even implicitly, practices that support the cultural mythology that we’re “best.”  These practices and pedagogies have become so central to our identities that changing them comes with great personal risk: interrupting the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and, importantly, the stories we tell about those unlike us that allow us to retain our perceived identities.  Going from not having to think about these uncomfortable truths to having to think about them raises the potential for white fragility: we need to sit with our defensiveness, and we need to consider what about grades and grading is making us feel that way and whether those feelings are worth the costs of disproportional practice.

As a department chair, one of the challenging conversations I have with colleagues is about grading, not because grades mean anything or accurately communicate anything about student mastery of skills, line items for behavior compliance and extra credit have rendered the numbers and letters useless, but because of the stories that grades tell.  Indeed, attaining good grades have become attendant with some sort of moral virtue, largely because grades are about aligning oneself, and in writing, their ideas and their voice, with the dominant culture.  Many schools have difficulty honoring non-dominant literacies and valuing non-dominant funds of knowledge because they are a threat to our supremacy and the beginning of slippery slope.  Powerful people fear losing the tools of their oppression.  Indeed, grades help us create a system of reward and punishment designed to modify behavior toward our white, heteronormative, neurotypical beliefs and values.  They help us stand guard at the gates of our space: ask yourself, for instance, who owns literacy and language in schools because of how we’ve graded and labeled reading and readers and writing and writers.

Many of our gaps in achievement and opportunity are created by our unwillingness to confront our own practices.  When related to grading, this means that we need to engage some uncomfortable truths about the way most of us our currently grading.

1.  Grading is for teachers, not for students.

In general, students aren’t involved in the grading process, which makes it mystifying; it’s something done to them rather than for them.  Students don’t consent to what grades mean or how they’re tabulated.  As teachers, then, we have all of the power, power which is easily weaponized to compel compliance with our norms: Asao B. Inoue asks us to consider the process by which we obtained our grades.  If we think not just about what grades we received, but the things we had to do to receive them—perhaps bringing in Kleenex boxes (buying our way to a grade) or subjugating our own ideas and identities for agreement with an authority figure—we might not be that proud. Sebastaio Salgado argues, “we photograph with all of our ideology,” and that’s true of grading, too.  For educators, grades are numerical manifestations of our beliefs and values that we project on to others, and if we’re not careful about interrogating our beliefs and values and the positionality we have to project them, we create problematic practices where we label, exclude, and limit based on congruence with our ethos.  One of the stories we often tell ourselves as teachers is that we’re “fair” graders, but I would argue that, accepting the premise that fairness is the goal, it is impossible to be completely “fair” in our grading because of our implicit biases and personal assumptions, especially if we’re are in privileged subjectivities. 

A good first step toward moving to “ungrading” is letting your students self-report their grades.  Before you engage in this process with your students, be sure that you’ve built substantive, trusting relationships with them because while you’re giving away some of your power, your presence as an authority in the conversation looms large.  There’s a tendency for students to want to please the authority figure, and there’s a tendency to steer students to the outcomes that we want: both of these need to be avoided.  This is only scratching the surface, but there’s some unlearning that needs to happen on both the teacher and student sides of this equation for self-reported grades to be substantive and not merely performative.  Students have to trust that self-reported grades aren’t another manipulation tactic that will end up being used against them in the long run, and we have to trust that students are not trying to put one over on us.

2.  Using a single standard to grade students is deeply inequitable.

While a single standard may seem “fair,” they are actually anathema to notions of fairness.  A single standard is unfair to many students, as single standards, by their very nature, are exclusive rather than inclusive, and to be “fair” means to reject systems and grading practices based on single standards.  In many cases, our single standard is the product that gets produced, but there’s so much that often gets overlooked when we only focus on the end result.  As Inoue writes, we can’t use a single-standard to simply define the quality of a student’s work, especially their writing, when could also look at the time and effort a student put in or the way in their process evolved.  Inoue encourages us, rightly, at least in my view, to think about assessment ecologies rather than standards, and, importantly, he encourages our students to do the same, a task that’s made easier when we trust them and engage them in playing in active role in building the frameworks to which they’re beholden.

Using a single standard—only looking at the quality of the finished product—also promotes competition for students to be the “best,” as we’ve defined it, which is often through white, heteronormative, neurotypical lenses.  High levels of academic competition are toxic, and there’s no reason to reproduce what standardized testing and college admissions processes have wrought in our classrooms, especially when fulfilling requirements for grades requires that students leave much of themselves behind.  As my Writing Center tutor Carsten Finholt argued at the IWCA collaborative this month, every student deserves a safe entry point to literacy that values who they are and what they know, and grades based on a single standard aren’t it.  A classroom graded on a single standard that pits students against one another for scores isn’t culturally responsive. 

IWCA CCCC 2019

An important note: not having a single standard doesn’t mean that there are no standards.   It means that instead of competing to be just like us, our students are working for themselves and their own improvement.  Here, they create their own standards based on their own goals.  If we don’t think students are capable of creating their own standards and their own goals based on what they need, we need to engage in some hard thinking about those believes based on our own racial and cultural perceptions of who can do what work and who can be responsible for shaping the learning environment and ecology for their own purposes.

Conclusion

A commitment to equity means working toward abolishing grades, even if that means that many of us may lose a source of our power and part of our privileged identities.  The risks of changing our interpretive stories are far less than the risks of continuing grading for another generation of students who will be labeled and defined forever by the letters and numbers we enter in a learning management system.

Creating Abundance: Making Space for All Readers When Using Whole-Class Texts

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One of the most frequent conversations I’ve had this year as department chair has been about students who don’t do the assigned readings for class. When folks initiate these conversations, they tend to do so for commiserative or palliative reasons, meaning they either want a knowing nod or pedagogical reassurance.  As a leader, one of the goals I have for the new year is to steer these conversations into a more reflective direction that allow individual teachers and my department as a whole to consider substantive reasons for why students might not be reading what we assign that moves beyond “kids these days” and to think about alternatives in pedagogy and practice that might increase reading participation without resorting to compliance-based methods that lead to performative reading in school and, worse yet, disengage students from the thought of readerly lives outside of school.    

The benefits of choice reading for students are well-documented.  I’ve written about how reading has been, in a way, recuperated from the doldrums of school.  However, there are sociopolitical realities for teachers in schools that often makes a choice-centered classroom a difficult proposition.  I worked in a district that mandated whole-class texts and required every teacher to be on the same page as their colleagues on the same day.  Not being on schedule was cause for at least a talking to by someone with authority.  Even choice reading, when it was allowed in one unit, featured lists of vetted books that were at the “correct” level.  In addition, while choice reading can be a really great tool for engagement, not every school—let alone every teacher—has the resources for a robust library and might rely on whole-class texts provided to them.

If we’re assigning whole-class texts, then it’s important to realize that our reading might not be a priority on a given day.  Students are in several classes with competing deadlines and they have pressing interests and necessities outside of school that need to be taken into account.  It’s here where I’ve seen teachers shame students, often passive aggressively, by finding ways to exclude them from participating in class, engaging with their peers, or reducing their grade through fact-based quizzes or reading logs, and it’s here where I think we can consider alternatives, namely making assigned readings part of a recursive, integrated learning process and finding ways to allow students who may not have gotten to the reading to meaningfully participate. This comes from a foundational belief that students want to learn and that, if they’re present, they should be able to come away with abundance rather than scarcity.

Students are very honest with me about their reading lives, and I appreciate their candor: they tell me when they didn’t have time to read, they let me know when they didn’t understand something, and they’re quick to tell me when they took what they needed and left what they didn’t in one of our whole-group texts (and, sometimes, what they needed was to not read). Their openness creates room for dialogue about their readerly lives and why and how we make these sorts of choices, which is always interesting and never punitive.  We need to trust our students to shape the learning environment and process in a way that works for them, even when we’re assigning whole-class texts.  Most often students read—or go back and read—because they know our learning is moving somewhere; it’s not a parade of texts for the sake of saying we read, but something connected to larger ideas and concepts.  Students also know that concepts are recursive, so while reading is important and encouraged, missing a single text or not reading every word of every page isn’t going to “cost” you.  Again, it’s important to focus on the abundant knowledge that students have and the skills they bring to the classroom rather than focusing on what they can’t do yet or wouldn’t do today.

One of the best ways to create abundance during whole-class texts is to make your classroom passage-based.  A passage-based classroom allows students to engage with key aspects of a text in ways that are both low-stakes and personally relevant.  Indeed, one of the keys to using smaller blocks of text to call on key themes and ideas in a passage-based classroom is to avoid asking convergent questions; these make any discussion or activity feel like a guessing game or like a compliance quiz masquerading as genuine engagement.  In my Humanities class, we work with non-fiction texts frequently, and I like to start out by asking small groups of students to think about two claims the author is making and why the think the author is writing the piece and to select at least one piece of evidence from the text that engages these ideas.   This works as a getting started strategy because it allows students—and me—to get some foundational understandings of the text while charting a path for the day’s discussion.  Here, students reengage the text: students who have read the text and have comfort with it push the boundaries out, often thinking about alternative meanings for the texts, students who read and don’t feel comfortable have a chance to sound themselves out with peers, and students who may not have read or read very little get a chance to skim the text and get oriented to some of its structures and major points in a low-stakes way that might encourage them to revisit what they missed.  This can generally branch into other work like passage-based turn and talks, chalk-talk assignments where students have an opportunity to make written interpretations using their thinking and have other students agree, disagree, problematize, or connect their thinking in writing, or passage-based philosophical chairs activity that asks students to move based on their agreement, disagreement, or desire to problematize the passage.  In each of these examples, the key is that students are not interested in being right or proving their devotion to a reading calendar, but they are making meaning together and thinking through key ideas in a way that’s inclusive and makes them want to engage the text more fully later.  I believe in my core that students don’t enjoy coming to class feeling inadequate and unprepared.  My goal is never to shame these students, but to invite them back into the process to ensure that they feel like going to back and reading is relevant and useful.

If a student is in your room, they want to learn, and we need to make space for everyone, whether they had a chance to read that day or not.